The story of Philomena Lee has been catapulted into international hearts thanks to the Academy Award nominated film directed by Stephen Frears and starring everybody’s favourite Dame, Judi Dench, in the title role. Steve Coogan takes on the part of Martin Sixsmith, the former Director of Communications for the British Government, journalist and author of the book the film is based on.
Tellingly, the book was previously entitled The Lost Child of Philomena Lee when first published in 2009 and this re-issue has been renamed Philomena, to tie in with the resounding success of the feature. This isn’t where the changes end – for all intents and purposes the movie is not a remake of the book, rather the book is the inspiration for the film. Where the film follows the author and the birth mother of an adopted child on their quest to research the life of and find the child that Philomena was forced to give up, the book differs in that it’s told narratively as the story of Anthony Lee (later known as Michael Hess), save for short interludes during which Sixsmith explains how he got involved with the case and a prologue and epilogue tying up the loose ends after the story has ended.
The book comes in four parts, each marking a new stage in the life of the lost child. Part One begins in 1951 in a convent in Roscrea, where a frightened young woman is going through a very difficult labour, aided only by an inexperienced nun and denied any medication. Painful from the off, the three years detention Philomena suffers in Sean Ross is given relief only when in the company of her doting son, for an hour after work in the laundry every night. In contrast with the inhumanity shown to the women the children’s lot is not a terrible one, especially under the watch of kind Sr Annunicata, who befriends mother and baby alike, showing compassion and understanding towards the former and love and commitment to the latter.
Philomena names her baby Anthony, who grows to be a sure-footed and cheerful child, with a trusting nature and a smile for all. A special bond is created between him and a little girl named Mary, a bond that is enough to seal his fate once he turns three.
Part One goes between the convent and Dublin, to a government worker by the name of Joe Coram, who is uncovering the truth behind adoptions by unwed mothers to America, following the news of one such transaction involving the Hollywood star Jane Russell. A scandal is brewing, one which is set to topple the hold of the Church over secular affairs, and Coram, along with his superior Frank Aiken, are tasked with the undertaking to get to the bottom of what is essentially the illegal selling of children. These segments reveal the frustrations of civil servants intent on putting right some of the wrongs, up against a hierarchy still heavily influenced by men of the cloth, but once the little boy has been adopted there isn’t much more said from that point of view, one gripe I have with an otherwise very well rounded story
Marjorie Hess is a good Catholic wife, with an Archbishop for a brother, three boys and a successful husband. However she desires a little girl and her brother arranges a trip to Ireland to adopt a child from what they assume is a reputable institution. In Roscrea she takes to little Mary, but cannot bear to separate her from her best friend Michael, so decides to take him too. The two are flown out to their new home just before Christmas 1955, and Anthony’s name is changed to Michael in honour of his adoptive father. While this drastic change traumatizes Mary, Anthony hides his fears by becoming the picture of perfection. He believes that his birth mother has given him away because of an intrinsic badness, and as the years go by this belief never disappears, and becomes all the more pronounced for him when he realizes his homosexuality.
Endeavouring to be a model son he excels at school, volunteers for various causes, and makes a name for himself as a talented musical theatre performer. While Part Two follows Michael’s formative years with the Hess’s through to his first year in university, Part Three delves into his post-graduate years, early career and burgeoning relationships. It’s an honest and frank account of the young man, based on many testimonies from friends and family, and it becomes clear that while he is still eager to please, kind-hearted and good-natured the side he represses, that of a lost, lonely boy who has never felt comfortable in his own skin, manifests itself in selfishness and casual cruelty towards those who get too close to him.
Part Four sees Michael in a loving long-term relationship and a high-flying career as Chief Counsel for the Republican Party. A life-changing incident encourages him to seek his birth mother out with a visit to Ireland, and he does so to little positive result. From the periodic interludes following Sixsmith’s progress the reader is aware that Philomena has herself been trying to find her son, and so it’s extremely frustrating to read of the blatant lies told by the remaining nuns from the old days of the convent to both mother and son, months apart.
Although the book is the remarkable story of a gay Irish adoptee rising to stratospheric heights in the US Government and his personal demons, the heart of it is basically the uncovering of the inhumane treatment of unwed mothers and their children in the 1950s and the untold trauma that befell each and every one of them. It’s a poignant and fascinating read, raising questions of not only how things could have been if the practice of shaming young unmarried mothers into giving away their babies had been realized earlier to be immoral and horrific, but of fate and destiny, missed chances and coincidences. Unknown to Sixsmith he had been introduced to Michael Hess years before the investigation began at a conference in New York.
-Aoife B. Burke
First published in The Tuam Herald on 20th February 2014